Monday, July 5, 2010

The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky

Why I read it: Already read Cod, and I've always found the regionalization of trends in the U.S. interesting.

Summary: Kurlansky, author of Cod and Salt, among others, found an unpublished manuscript - or at least the barebones makings of one - of a Depression era Federal Writers' Project project and has edited it down to the current book. America Eats was supposed to be a snapshot of the American dinner table in the 1930s. The Food of a Younger Land takes that snapshot and photoshops it seventy years in the future.

My Thoughts: Stumbling across a lost manuscript can be, for a writer, a magical moment. Thoughts race, with the ultimate winning notion being, "what can I do with this?" Can it be published as is? Can I expound upon it? Can I be the one who brings it to light after all these years?

In many cases, there's a reason why the book never saw that light. It's incomplete. It's incorrect. The author quarreled with a publisher or an editor, and scrapped the project in disgust. In this case, war got in the way. The Depression ended, federal funds were diverted away from America Eats and into war causes. The book vanished into a pile of similar documents, to gather dust for eternity.

But Kurlansky has resurrected America Eats, and has given us exactly what its creators intended: a picture of that Depression era dinner table. And think about it! In the 1930s, there was no interstate highway system. Read: there was no fast food. Americans ate what they ate locally in those days, and nowhere was there a chain restaurant recognizable to someone in Florida as well as someone in Washington State. Vermonters ate pancakes and sausages, Kentuckians quarreled over the proper way to make a mint julep, Oregonians struggled with geoducks, an southerners apparently poured Worcestershire sauce into everything.

If there is one drawback to the book, it's that it's incomplete, through no fault of Kurlansky's. Certain states just never did their fair share. Massachusetts and Missouri top that list. Of course, baked beans make the grade, complete with the reason for their deep ties to New England (religion - you could cook them on Saturday and avoid work on Sunday), but beyond that, my home state is barely touched.

Kurlansky adds not only gastronomic history to the book, but has researched the writers as well. Some famous names, like Eudora Welty, are here, but many times the writers are as anonoymous as...well, I don't know who's anonymous. I guess if I knew them, they wouldn't be anonymous. One thing to note is the inclusion of a section on the Basques in Iowa. My suspicion is that is how Kurlansky found the manuscript in the first place, he being the writer of an acclaimed book on the subject of those people in their native land in the Pyrenees.

It's a long journey through The Food of a Younger Land, but then, it's a big country. Food history is cultural history, and this book proves how regionally diverse we once were in America, from Long Island hassenpfeffer to Montana fried beaver tail.

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